Reflections on Disciplining the City

By Matt Guariglia 

This year the New York City Police Department announced that it would be integrating a new fleet of drones into its policing procedure for large events. In 2018, the NYPD also announced that it was experimenting with a lasso that would subdue citizens during mental health crises. Even as policing becomes more technologically advanced (see: predictive policing) it also serves us constant reminders that it is an institution temporally trapped. As often as they go to cutting edge technologies to mitigate problems, they also draw upon the well of history—even if that means redeploying tactics that would have looked familiar a century and a half ago. This is why, 2018 was a year in which studying the history of policing, crime, and incarceration was more pivotal than ever.

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Armed policeman holding newspaper “Muhammad Speaks,” taken from the trunk of a car following shootout near a Black Muslim mosque in Los Angeles, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

All year the increasingly frequent overlapping worlds of public scholarship and academic publishing have been rife with important work to help us contextualize both this change over time and the continuity in the history criminal justice and state power. University of North Carolina Press’s intrepid “Justice, Power, and Politics” series edited by Heather Ann Thompson and Rhonda Y. Williams has published incredible works including Max Felker-Kantor’s Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance and the Rise of the LAPD, Tera Eva Agyepong’s The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945, and Adam Malka’s The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, which helps historians fill in that pivotal moment as the state and its deputized mobs transitioned from attempting to subordinate enslaved individuals to attempting to exert control over free citizens. Similarly, Monica Muñoz Martinez’s 2018 book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas from Harvard University Press provides an analysis of how state and non-state violence on the U.S.-Mexican border was interwoven. The findings of this book, including its essential chronicling of the Texas Rangers, should now be at the center all of historians’ analysis of state violence, police power, and U.S. imperialism.

51ofMqWFZmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Other books that came out this year also open up new directions for how historians in the future can better understand police, not as faceless agents of the state, but as people and laborers with their own ideologies. Timothy Lombardo’s Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics from University of Pennsylvania Press provides historians and readers with an understanding of law and order politics from the ground up as it chronicles Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo’s rise to power by playing on the politics of race, place, and blue-collar white ethnicity. As the news media becomes increasingly aware of how prevalent extreme ring-wing and white supremacist ideologies are within the ranks of police and the military in the United States, Kathleen Belew’s earth shattering new book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America from Harvard University Press, is increasingly essential. It should now be an expectation that all scholars of state institutions like the military and police departments look at the types of networks and ideologies that can form within those infrastructures.

In addition to each of these authors making a number of media appearances to discuss their books and expertise, good scholarly analysis of policing and incarceration have also been prevalent in forums like the Washington Post’s “Made By History,” including Dan Berger’s article on the Florida prison strike or Susan Pearson’s article connecting state management of birth certificates with Jim Crow and racial state building . The Boston Review’s most recent issue “Evil Empire: A Reckoning With Power” also features a number of historians of racial state building, empire, and state violence including Marisol LeBrón, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Stuart Schrader. This very blog, The Metropole and its “Disciplining the City” series ran a number of incredibly interesting and useful pieces this year, including Carolyn Levy’s article on policing a gendered morality in 19th century San Francisco.

2019 will be a bigger year for scholars and students hoping to enrich the growing field of carceral studies. In the upcoming year, the field will continue to grow as scholars expand what we consider the boundaries of the carceral state. Historians of politics, surveillance, immigration restrictions, the policing of gender and sexuality, the relationship between the state and segregation, all have an opportunity to contribute to our understanding of the development of carceral logic. In the current climate where people divulge an overwhelming amount of personal data—from taste in shoes to DNA—to profit-seeking corporations known to cooperate with the police, it is essential that historians of prisons and policing understand surveillance and knowledge production about subjects as central to the carceral project. Books like Sarah Igo’s The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America and 2017’s Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America by Josh Lauer, and Simone Brown’s 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness are as requisite reading for scholars grappling with how the state learned how to build a its current system and who to inhabit it with.

Across the country, scholars interested in the carceral state spoke to politicians, law schools, and served as experts and consultants on questions of criminal justice and prison reform. Scholars also used their positions in and out of universities to contribute to invaluable prison education programs and to bring attention to the indignities of modern incarceration. Around the country scholars have also lead symposia, conferences, workshops, with students, the public, and incarcerated people to discuss the meaning and history of the carceral state and how it effects the lives of so many. The Urban History Association, the purveyors of this blog, hosted close to ten panels at its 2018 conference in Columbia, South Carolina that touched on issues of incarceration, crime, and policing.

As the field of imprisonment and policing history becomes larger in the coming years, my hope is that the scope of that field will stay wide and inclusive. More scholars and more scholarship means we can all continue to grapple with how diffuse the power of the state and its deputized civilians and corporations can be. As many scholars have shown, policing and incarceration directed at vulnerable people on the edges of society inform what happens at the center, and how policing looks in the center informs the type of policing used at the edges. Historians, however, have never been better equipped to excavate, to quote Kelly Lytle Hernández, “incarceration—and the patterns it harbors.”

Featured image (at top): Composite photograph group of the Chiefs of Police, New York City, 1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work exploring Donald Trump’s use of MS-13 in rhetorical fear mongering appeared in the Washington Post in April. 

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